|Sheridan in his Civil War prime|
I never know what to think of guys like General Philip Henry Sheridan. He certainly isn't a Jefferson or FDR but he was a major figure in preserving the Union during the Civil War which also ended the institution of slavery. That in itself is a noble thing. But he isn't really remembered for that so much. With the Union intact, the US looked again to the West. Sheridan and his peers resumed American expansionism with the exploitation and near genocide of the indigenous people of America. He is mostly remembered for an infamous (mis)quote "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."
|Sheridan Monument in Somerset OH|
It turns out Sheridan, who earned his "Little Phil" nickname from his 5'5" stature, either didn't know where he was born or lied about it because he had early Presidential aspirations. He is on the record as saying Somerset OH at one point, Albany NY another time, and even Massachusetts. In all likelihood, he was born in Ireland or possibly on the ship from Ireland to the US. The dates of his parent's immigration seem to suggest this. The city of Somerset OH claimed him as early as 1888 and erected a statue of him in 1905. The memorial is the only Civil War equestrian statue in Ohio. His Mother is also on Team Somerset but said his birth certificate was burned in a fire. Convenient. We do know he spent his early childhood there. For the record, Albany NY claims him as well. For more on all this check out this link with telegrams and articles from February 1888.
During the Plains Indian Wars in the last half of the 19th century, they had a tough time determining a friendly or a "good" Indian vs a hostile or "bad" Indian. Some "good" Indians assisted Americans soldiers as scouts and provided intelligence on other Indians. It got complicated. Some bands or individuals within the same tribes had differing allegiances. To most Americans on the Plains, there was no distinction. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
Comanche Chief Tosahwi identifying himself to Sheridan in 1869 at Fort Cobb in present-day Oklahoma as a "good" Indian meaning he was cooperative and not hostile to US goals. Sheridan supposedly replied, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Sheridan denies he ever said such a thing.
Post Civil War diplomacy in the 1860s and 1870s seemed to be shoot first and...who the hell cares about asking any questions, just shoot! Entire villages, women and children too, could be easily mowed down by the new automatic Hotchkiss guns. Keep in mind, many whites at that time considered Indians as an inferior savage race. Even good old George Washington stated a hundred years prior “Indians and wolves are both beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape". Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," tells the 1867 account of Colonel Maynadier and a local "good" Indian named Spotted Tail. He was shocked to see Spotted Tail cry upon hearing the news of his daughter's death. The Colonel was raised to believe Indians didn't really have human emotions like whites.
|Little Big Phil Sheridan in 1876|
So, if he denied the quote why wasn't he taking credit and bragging rights? Or for that matter, if it was a statement of regret, why not just say that? No one seems to know. The General died in August 1888 from heart failure at the age of 57. Ironic, right? If he ever wrote about it we'll never know. His personal papers were burned in the 1871 Chicago Fire. I assume this was the same fire that destroyed his birth certificate.
I suppose it makes no difference if he said it or not. While the quote is apocryphal it certainly embodied the spirit of his attitude and the general American outlook in the late 19th century. At the end of the day, even though his name and image adorn towns, counties, tanks, mountains, stamps and old bank notes, the "quote" will always be his legacy.
Happy late belated birthday. I guess.
Philip Henry Sheridan at PBS.org
Philip Sheridan at History.com
Colonial Williamsburg - The Indian War
Collection of 1888 articles & telegrams claiming and disputing Sheridans birthplace